12 May 2008

Safety Net Programs Show Holes in the System

Moving people from public assistance to financial independence is a delicate matter. It involves coordinating so many competing elements - child care, food, transportation, utilities, rent, clothing and incidentals. Many families rob Peter to pay Paul, skating by month to month, living paycheck to paycheck because the low-skill, low-wage jobs where they have found employment do not pay a living wage, a salary that will support families with children. The working poor have to make very difficult choices - to keep the lights on or to buy food (pantries and food aid agencies across the country are experiencing shortages presently); to repair the car or to buy medicine for the sick kids; to pay the rent or to fill up the gas tank to get to work. And at least in Memphis, public transportation is not a viable option for many people. Erratic bus schedules and inconvenient bus lines make getting to and from work - with kids and groceries in tow - a mighty challenge.

So some states are trying to help their working poor, the people who have moved from public assistance to paid employment but who are still having trouble getting by. States are giving monthly cash stipends to working adults to help them make ends meet.

From the New York Times article:

The women are pioneers in an emerging social experiment as states across the country try to go beyond simply moving people off welfare. Over the last two years, officials in Arkansas and at least a dozen other states have announced plans to extend the safety net — through monthly cash payments — to thousands of low-income workers struggling to gain a foothold in the work world. Arkansas provides poor working parents with $204 a month, plus bonuses for staying employed, for up to two years. Oregon offers $150 a month for up to a year. Virginia gives $50 a month for up to a year. And the California Legislature is considering a plan, proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to provide $40 a month to 41,000 working families that receive food stamps. “The goal had been getting parents off of welfare,” said Jack Tweedie of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who counsels states on poverty issues and has advised Arkansas officials. “The emphasis now is much more on work and helping parents stay in work.”

This is a laudable effort. Strengthening the safety net for working families - the adults who are trying their best to get on and stay on their feet - is of utmost importance. It is the right thing to do to care for families with children. Unfortunately, these cash-assistance efforts miss the point: many jobs in our country do not pay a living wage. They do not have a career ladder that provides upward mobility for families. They are jobs for an expendable workforce, often without benefits or full-time employment. They are jobs that do not pay enough for a family to get a leg up and out of poverty, or even low-income status.

An adult earning minimum wage - $5.85/hour - working full-time, year-round will still only make $12,000 per year. For a family of three, the Federal Poverty Level is just over $17,000 - which means that even if there are two adults earning minimum wage in full-time, year-round work, their combined annual income will only be $24,000, which still puts them squarely in the low-income bracket. The added cash-assistance boost will help a little bit, but not enough to address the root causes of poverty: a well-maintained system of institutionalized poverty in which the growing divide between the very rich and the very poor spans wider every year. Barbara Kellerman from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government discusses this divide here.

What we have is a compensatory system, a well-maintained welfare state that subsidizes poverty rather than addressing the problems at its roots. While well-intentioned, programs that throw $40 or $150 here and there at families in need may help temporarily, but they hardly speak to the deeper problems of servitude and cheap labor which keep people from moving up in their careers. State-sponsored charity will not help families in the long run. It will not help the children in these families who are growing up in poverty, in schools where many of their peers are in the same situation, in communities marred by poverty and desperation.

What we need is comprehensive wage reform where all jobs pay a living wage - $10 an hour with benefits or $12 an hour without benefits - and in doing this, families can become financially independent, care for their children, plan for the future and not have to make difficult choices about which bills to pay this month and which to put off until next month.

For more about safety nets and who picks up the pieces when lives fall apart because of sporadic or underpaying and precarious employment, read The Missing Class.

The following is my favorite passage from the book:

Those of us who want women to be able to stand on their own feet do not like to hear that the children the women leave behind during the workday may be doomed to repeat the lives of their poor mothers. But in a world where high-quality child care is available only to the wealthy or the lucky, a child's prospects can be irreparably damaged if her mother disappears for many hours every day, leaving her in the care of someone who lets drug addicts into the house. What matters more, the mother's shot at present-day security or the next generation's potential for future success? At the moment, we may be addressing the problems of the parents, only to see a "sacrificed generation" emerge, a cohort of children condemned by poor schooling or entanglement in the criminal justice system to a life not unlike the one their parents were running hard to escape (p177).

No comments: